On 1 July 1916, World War 1 British Army General Haig ordered the Somme offensive. The British Army would suffer 60,000 casualties on the first day of the Battle of the Somme and Haig’s poor strategy throughout the battle earned him the ignominious nickname of ‘Butcher Haig’.
Indeed, so ill-suited were his tactics for the troops at his disposal that historian Normal Stone has since referred to him as Scotland’s greatest ever general since he was responsible for the deaths of more Englishmen than any other.
1 July 2017 marks the date of another expedition by British and Irish forces. The day will see the British and Irish Lions lock horns with the All Blacks for the crucial second test of the 2017 Lions tour of New Zealand. The Lions will be keen to identify opposition weakness and play to their own strengths more effectively than Haig managed 101 years previously.
However, an examination of the players in question and the track record of the coach set to lead them raises questions as to whether they will do so.
When Ireland won the Six Nations in 2009, they saw 15 of their number initially selected for that year’s tour. Similarly, there were 15 Welshmen among the touring pride following their Six Nations triumph in 2013. Thus, it’s wise to assume that England will form the backbone of the 2017 incarnation. And rightly so.
England are, despite their dour display in Dublin last time out, undoubtedly the Six Nations’s best side. Their pack is power personified and they boast a back line laced with precision and nuance of the degree that could cause the All Blacks serious problems. Scotland’s players were rightly vilified for their scandalously lax defending in the face of England’s onslaught at Twickenham, but there does come a point when one must cease to castigate their opponents and simply laud the brutal efficiency with which England are capable of operating.
Eddie Jones has done a sterling job in guiding England to Six Nations supremacy, but will be in absentia when his charges morph from white knights to red lions in New Zealand. There, Warren Gatland will be calling the shots, with Welsh coach Rob Howley as backs coach. Therein, one fears, lies the problem.
England are at their best with Farrell at 12 aiding distribution, using decoy runners and asking constant questions of defences, which they ultimately can’t answer. This is hardly Gatland’s style. Indeed, so synonymous has Gatland become with his favoured playbook that for all the mysteries surrounding the Lions’ impending tour, their style of play isn’t one of them.
Gatland’s charges will revert to the eponymous Warrenball as they did four years ago. They will prize brawn before brain, cherish grit rather than guile, and waste the most exciting talents these isles have to offer in doing so.
Gatland will quickly point to the success his style enjoyed when he was Wales coach. His tenure did deliver two grand slams, but their fortunes against the southern hemisphere giants has been less than stellar.
Their three-Test tour of New Zealand last year is a case in point. A 14-point deficit was the closest Wales got to felling the All Blacks, and their record against southern hemisphere sides as a whole isn’t much better.
As reported by Wales Online last year, their last 33 games against the traditional tri-nations have garnered just two wins, neither against the All Blacks. In fact, they haven’t beaten New Zealand since 1953. Hardly a ringing endorsement of Warrenball’s potency down-under.
New Zealand in particular appear impervious to a game plan based purely on power. Following Ireland’s win over New Zealand in November pundits rushed to offer the one sweeping reason to justify the win.
Gordon D’Arcy, writing in the Irish Times, was among the most accurate:
“We must take risks to earn any rewards, like we did in Chicago. We must avoid carrying ball around the corner and into their big forwards.
“We must, as Conor Murray did so effectively, constantly change the point of attack.”
One would struggle to pen a more succinct rebuff of Warrenball. The only thing he is inclined to change about the point of attack is the ferocity with which it is hit, rather than the direction from which the offence originates.
Gatland has found success in Europe by marrying such a plan with the likes of Jamie Roberts and Mike Phillips. How players in the Conor Murray or Jonathan Joseph mould will perform singing off Gatland’s hymn sheet remains to be seen.
As 1918 progressed, the relevance of the ham-fisted nature of General Haig’s initial generalship faded. His British forces contrived to string together several victories, ultimately leading to the end of World War 1.
A similarly inept beginning to the 2017 tour, however, is unlikely to end in triumph for the touring team.
Colm Egan, Pundit Arena